“Autumn is a second spring when every leaf is a flower.” Albert Camus
Polly* and Paul* met when both were hired separately as section leaders for a famous chorus. (I won’t give a location, vague or otherwise, but can tell you it has been in existence for over a century.) They’ve been married three years and have sung with the chorus for five. Generally, they are happy with their gig. Both have not been happy recently and contacted me. It’s a slightly complicated reason, so bear with me while I try to explain.
Famous Chorus* is a highly auditioned and respected community chorus which sings with the local professional symphony and has its own concerts as well. With over 100 volunteer singers, there are eight section leaders, two for each voice part. With each vocal part consisting of 25 to 30 people, having two section leaders is important to keep tabs on what is happening within a section.
New volunteer singers audition twice a year, once during the summer and once in January before rehearsals begin for the spring and summer concerts. Once a volunteer singer auditions and is accepted, they are members until they are not able to sing a concert, then must re-audition. There are volunteer singers who have been members for 20 or even 30 years, not taking a concert off no matter what. Auditions have gotten harder. Vocal quirks and flaws are no longer tolerated for re-auditioners and this is the way those folks are weeded out of the chorus. Both Polly and Paul tell me there are singers in each of their sections who should not be singing any longer in a group such as Famous Chorus. They have wobbles or breath issues or typical aging vocal problems, including not being able to hear! But this isn’t really why they have contacted me.
Polly’s and Paul’s discontent started when Famous Chorus’s long-time music director retired last year, and then passed away during the summer. With his retirement, the Board began the search process. Four music director candidates were chosen, one for each of their scheduled concerts. The spring concert is usually a “bits and pieces” concert, the summer is a Pops concert, the fall concert is usually with the symphony and the winter concert is either Messiah or a typical winter holiday Mish-Mash. The spring concert and summer Pop’s concert were prepared by two of the MD candidates, with the fall and winter concerts being prepared by the last two. The local professional symphony decided to defer their annual collaboration until the new music director is chosen.
We pick up Polly’s and Paul’s story right now, after two rehearsal cycles and concerts. The spring concert was a bit strange, knowing their beloved music director was ill. The chorus seemed to be ambivalent about that candidate, didn’t always cooperate and was a bit unruly in rehearsal. The summer Pop’s concert, sung outside, was even more of a challenge with singers not practicing (fun music most could sight read), talking while other parts were being rehearsed and coming late to rehearsal. They don’t feel either of those candidates would have been a good fit for Famous Chorus but singers’ behavior didn’t help show either to their best advantage.
What prompted their contact of me was the atmosphere of rehearsals leading up to their fall concert. Rehearsals began the end of September for their mid-November concert, with the third MD candidate leading them. Behavior during rehearsals has deteriorated to such an extent one of their fellow section leaders left the room in tears! The section leaders are now wondering if they are now expected to be on “playground duty” in addition to leading sections musically. Many of the volunteer singers are furious they will not be singing the usual fall concert with the symphony and that has prompted some of the rowdiness in rehearsal.
Paul approached a Board member, asking if he could speak at their meeting last week. After he explained the problem, he was told the Board “has their backs.” Paul asked me what I thought that meant. I told him it means if the section leaders reprimand a singer in rehearsal, they will be supported, but I’m not sure!
This whole situation has occurred because Famous Chorus is in transition, without strong leadership. It is my understanding from Polly and Paul they do have an executive director. I wondered why they didn’t approach him. Didn’t he realize what was going on in rehearsal? Polly tells me he always refers them to the Board for those sorts of things.
I told Polly and Paul to sit tight. First, with a new, strong music director things should improve. And it’s probably time to rethink volunteer membership requirements, so they should certainly mention it to the new MD. Since they are encouraged to approach the Board, perhaps it’s time to mention their Executive Director’s lack of help during this transition.